It was a month ago today that I was enjoying a sunny, early spring Sunday, on my way to get ice cream to celebrate New York's first peek at warmer weather, that I noticed an email in my inbox with the subject line: "Important Notification from the FBI." I did a double take. The letters FBI jumped out at me.
A pang of shock hit my gut and worked its way up to my throat. But I took a breath and quickly dismissed the note as likely spam and decided not to open it. I went about my business, but I could no longer eat my ice cream or enjoy the nice day. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should at least open that email. I knew enough to avoid clicking on links in case it was a phishing scam, so what could be the harm in just opening the email?
I opened it and read a very terse and formal note from a special agent whose full name and email were listed. The note said that I was a potential target of terrorist activity. It said that thousands of others were on the list, too, and that my personal information had been published online. They said my information had been leaked by a group calling itself the United Cyber Caliphate.
The note said that I was a potential target of terrorist activity. It said that thousands of others were on the list, too.
The FBI added that, while they didn’t believe this was a specific threat, they were alerting me out of an “abundance of caution” and that I should contact them or call 911 if I saw anything suspicious. Finally, they asked me to reply to the email to confirm I had received it, or call the FBI office. Questions swirled through my mind. What was the difference between a specific and nonspecific threat? And what sort of suspicious things should I be looking for?
I still had my doubts about the authenticity of the email, but there weren't any misspellings or grammatical errors, or prompts to click on links, things that typically alert you to spam. I let the message ruminate for a moment while feeling increasingly frozen and terrified. I felt like I had been dropped into a bad action film, one in which bombs are about to fall from the sky. I wondered if my life was about to change forever.
My heart leapt into my throat. This wasn’t just some angry, disenfranchised kid. These were actual fighters from the scariest group imaginable: ISIS.
After collecting myself, I decided to independently look up the number for the FBI office — which turned out to be identical to the number listed in the email — and I called. An operator confirmed that the special agent who wrote to me was real and that it was important we speak. I was patched through to a voicemail and left a message, and then also replied to the original email. The agent wrote me back later that afternoon to let me know again that they didn’t think there was an immediate threat, but that I should be cautious. They would let me know more when they did.
It all seemed so surreal. Who the hell was I that I would be the target of terrorists? Where were these people located, and what was stopping them from following through on their threat to kill me? I slept with one eye open that night, terrified that someone would burst through my door and kill me in cold blood.
A few days later, news reports started coming out about the list. First from bloggers who cover the cyberterrorism beat, and then from mainstream outlets that picked up the story. All reported that the names on the list seemed random and that it didn’t appear to be up to date. That was a relief. It turned out I wasn’t anyone important, just a randomly chosen target. But the news outlets were also reporting that United Cyber Caliphate was a group affiliated with ISIS.
That's when my heart leapt into my throat. This wasn’t just some angry, disenfranchised kid. These were actual fighters from the scariest group imaginable: ISIS.
The aim of releasing the names on that list was to make people second guess themselves, to make people afraid, and it worked. That one email changed my life forever.
But being targeted has totally changed my perspective of just how terrorism works. The aim of releasing the names on that list was to make people second guess themselves, to make people afraid, and it worked. That one email changed my life forever.
If there is one good thing to come out of this horrible experience, it's a new awareness of, and solidarity with, the millions of people whose lives are interrupted and threatened by terrorism each day. No longer are these people just headlines to me; going through what I did has made me feel more intensely for the people who live with these kind of threats. People in Syria and Iraq who have lost their homes and family members to ISIS. People in other countries that have been ravaged by war. They are experiencing this kind of terror on a daily basis. And the threats they face aren't just online.
Editor's note: Refinery29 reached out to the FBI's New York field office to verify the authenticity of the email Parker said she received. This story has been updated at 3:30 p.m. with the following statement from the FBI.
"While our standard practice is to decline comment on specific operational and investigative matters, the FBI routinely notifies individuals and organizations of information collected during the course of an investigation that may be perceived as potentially threatening in nature. Potential threats may relate to individuals, institutions, or organizations, and are shared in order to sensitize potential victims to the observed threat, and to assist them in taking proper steps to ensure their safety," Kelly J. Langmesser, a spokeswoman in the FBI's New York office, told Refinery29.